Save Gorillas in East Africa and go on Tour!

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Gorillas have fascinated people for decades. They’ve been hunted and poached to near extinction and brought back from the brink thanks to the magnificent efforts of conservationists such as Dian Fossey and David Attenborough. Poaching is still a big problem in mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but thanks to the rising popularity of gorilla-based tourism and local initiatives to turn poachers into guides, gorillas have a fighting chance of long-term survival.

Gorilla tourism falls under the niche umbrella of sustainable tourism. That is, it embodies the spirit of conservation, community upliftment and do-no-harm. Because the survival of gorillas is precariously balanced, tourism programmes have to be carefully monitored and tour operators, guides and tourists have to obey several strict rules.  For instance, no flash photography is allowed, if you have flu or any other communicable disease you are not allowed to go on a tour, contact time is limited to one hour only, and there must always be 5m between you and the gorillas. It’s also important that guides don’t try to attract the gorillas’ attention by mimicking their movements or noises.

Unfortunately, many guides break these rules in the hope that doing so will earn them bigger tips. This is not helped by the fact that many tourists encourage guides to break the rules by promising generous gratuities. There is also concern that the money generated by gorilla tourism ($90 million for the first half of 2010 alone) is not being pumped back into conservation and community projects but is being used for other (less noble) purposes.

To help guides stick to the rules, it’s essential that tourism efforts extend beyond tours and focus on indirect benefits that empower communities and increase employment. These include safari packages that explore other wildlife in the region, sprucing up local eateries and shops to entice foreign custom, and helping to boost villages’ reputations as accommodation options rather than franchise hotels. Benefits already felt by locals include greater access to electricity and improved roads and transport infrastructure.

All in all, gorilla tourism seems to do more harm than good. To ensure that it stays that way, tourism programmes need to be carefully monitored and local communities encouraged to abide by the rules. Tourists also need to learn to respect gorillas and their habitat. These majestic beasts are not performing monkeys there for tourists’ pleasure. Remember that you’re invading their territory; they’re allowing you one of the greatest experiences known to mankind. The least you can do in return is respectfully enjoy it.

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